We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019


Jessica Niles, Eliza Bonet, Jessica Fishenfeld, Cory Battey, Scott Bradley Joiner, and Trevor Martin

In their fourth season, City Lyric Opera has everything going for itself. Helmed by two lovely ladies (incidentally, both possessors of lovely voices), this young company has garnered a highly invested young audience by virtue of their conviction and dedication to their mission. If you, dear reader, recall their origin as A.R.E. Opera, you will probably also recall what the initials stood for--opera that is Accessible, Relatable, and Enjoyable. Trust us when we tell you that these goals are still on the table, although there is a lot more to consider.

The idea of creating an artistic community in New York City is not a new one but it is rather new to the field of opera. Keeping ticket prices affordable--a price point of about $15-20 is eminently affordable--is also not new; but creating works of quality at that price point is a challenge they have met. Superb singers are attracted to the company and are treated as the artists they are, with generous fees paid.

This quality, combined with adventuresome programming relevant to our times, is responsible for their meteoric rise. Productions of operas are augmented by stimulating salon evenings and an annual WorkshOpera, one of which we attended last year; it was an eye-opening experience to learn about the creation of an opera!

We are not sure how the founders, Kathleen Spencer and Megan Gillis, have managed to accomplish this so rapidly but we suspect it has much to do with commitment, conviction, dedication, and hard work.

Last night the season opener was a gala event held at Steinway Hall involving some glorious singing, free-flowing champagne, and delicious passed hors d'oeuvres. These gals sure know how to throw a party! This is a family worth joining!

The major joy of our work is watching the developing careers of young artists. Take for example the sublime soprano Jessica Niles whom we first heard at a liederabend at Juilliard a couple years ago, singing Russian songs which she had translated herself. We were impressed and subsequently caught her performances in Juilliard's opera performances --Zerlina in Don Giovanni and Anna in Nikolai's Merry Wives of Windsor--perfect ingenue roles. 

Last night she performed Adina's aria "Prendi, per me sei libero" from Donizetti's L'elisir d'Amore, showing a deep understanding of the character and exhibiting a nice clean fioritura in the cabaletta. Later, she sang Emily's aria from Ned Rorem's Our Town. Her dramatic interpretation was moving; however we'd be lying if we said we liked the music. We didn't think Thornton Wilder would have wanted his story to be set to music, especially music without a memorable vocal line. Just sayin'!

We were delighted by the performances of mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet whom we haven't seen since she portrayed a dominatrix (!) in the clever Three Ways by Robert Paterson (libretto by David Cote), a couple years ago. It really takes some Italian singing to appreciate the quality of a singer's voice and last night her choice of "Cruda sorte" from Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri was just right to show off the terrific texture of her instrument and the spunkiness of her personality.

She delved deeper into her capacity for humor in Ben Moore's "Sexy Lady", written for Susan Graham--just one more funny song about the mezzo's dilemma. In this case, the words were more important than the music.

The meteoric rise of soprano Jessica Fishenfeld is another story that delights us. We first heard her as the Sandman in Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel at Manhattan School of Music about six years ago. Then we saw her with Gramercy Opera in something called Big Jim and the Small-time Investors, a cute story with forgettable music. What we remember best was her duet with tenor Scott Bradley Joiner who joined her last night for the highly convincing love duet "Tornami a dir" from Donizetti's Don Pasquale. Hmmmm. Interesting. We wondered if they met during the production of Big Jim.

Absolutely dazzling was Ms. Fishenfeld's portrayal of Cunegonde from Bernstein's Candide, which opened the program last night. In "Glitter and be Gay" the word "revel" was never given such dramatic realization and the contrast between that and the crocodile tears of the slow section was impressive. Adding to the fun was a huge garment which Ms. Fishenfeld used well in the phrase "spread my wings".

She also performed a duet with baritone Trevor Martin (the only singer last night who was new to us)--"Make Believe" from the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical Showboat, which is sounding more and more like opera.

(We might add that Ms. Fishenfeld appeared with New York City Opera the previous night at their 75th Anniversary Concert in Bryant Park. That was understandably amplified so we didn't appreciate the artist's development until the City Lyric Opera event last night.)

Mr. Martin made a convincing Escamillo in the "Toreador Song" from Bizet's Carmen, as well as a fine romantic partner in the Showboat number. He also sang "Joey, Joey" from Frank Loesser's Most Happy Fella, showing us again how operatic a Broadway musical can be when sung unamplified by an operatically trained voice. It was at this point in the program that we realized just how excellent was the accompanist Cory Battey. When the wind whispered to Joey, we actually heard it in the piano!

Similarly, Mr. Joiner got his solo number as well, the well-loved "Questa o Quella" from Verdi's Rigoletto, which was sung in garlic-scented Italian of which every word was clear.

Just as one might expect in this bubbly evening, the encore was a group sing of "Libiamo" from Verdi's La Traviata!

This was a marvelous introduction to City Lyric Opera's fourth season and presented many reasons for us opera lovers to give our support, both financially and otherwise.  The next Mainstage event will be Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium which opens appropriately on Halloween. This will be preceded by a Salon Evening on Oct. 15th which should provide some interesting insights into truth and reality.

(c) meche kroop

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